Preserving olives

Preserving olives is fun to do and not arduous, but attention to detail is important and you must have access directly to the farmer to make it affordable. Is your well-being that important to you that you will turn the television off and make the time?

Like I said, it is not arduous, but you do have to examine each an every olive to see if it has been damaged or stung by insects; that does take time. About four hours to process 60kg of olives in the 2020 season, and get them into brine. This year we are trying a different technique for the first time; scroll down to the bottom of the page.

I will be telling you how much time, down the road, and how many ball games you will be missing.

We have purchased 40 kg of black olives directly from the farmer. If you want to be really sure, go and pick them yourself; it would make a lovely outing for the family to a Little Karoo farm.

Pick your own. PYO.

Because they definitely must be under water within 24 hours, and preferably 12. It would seem there are three ways of preserving olives after they have been in brine for several months.

  • The Italian way: just leave them in brine and do nothing more; enjoy them whilst there is still a distinct bitterness.
  • The Greek way: soak them in water for one day and then preserve them in olive oil.
  • The Cape way: put them into a hot vinegar solution. This way they will keep for several years without going mushy.
  1. Bernard Preston
  2. Preserving olives
Olives and olive oil.

This page was last updated by Bernard Preston on the 14th July, 2020.

Black mission olive.

Preserving black olives

This is an especially good recipe for preserving Mission black olives, but you probably cannot be that choosy. Take whatever you can get.

Use only freshly-picked olives; it is not worth spending this amount of time on second rate fruit, once bruised or damaged, oxidation sets in. Remember, you will not be enjoying them for perhaps six to eight months. Choose only the best.

For a good oil you do not want black olives because they are too ripe, but for those lusting for the whole fruit they are perfect once they are plump but still firm, and a shiny dark colour.

"A good olive is something that is well balanced. It is not overly bitter, nor overly pungent.

The fruit, bitterness and pungency are all in harmony."

- Jason de Beer, Morgenster.

Step 1: Wash and soak

Washing 60 kg of olives in large tubs.

Wash your olives and they definitely must be submerged under fresh water within 24 hours of harvesting. Discard any that float.

Replace the water after one day and leave them there for another 24 hours.

Step 2: 10% brine solution

In a large clean bucket stir 1 kg of table salt into 10 litres of water; within half an hour you will have your ten percent brine solution ready for the first step of preserving your olives.

Step 2: Examine each olive

Examine each olive before putting them in sacks to go in the brine solution.

After two days when the olives have been washed and soaked comes the rather more tedious part of the operation. This is a good activity for the whole family to get involved in; all those who want to enjoy the fruit.

Those who are conspicuous by their absence may find their plates devoid of olives at lunch time.

Carefully examine each and every one, removing all stems, and discarding any that are physically damaged or have been stung by insects. Place them in an orange pocket, or something similar.

One damaged olive can spoil the whole bucket.

The purpose of these bags is simply to make transfer to clean brine much easier; you simply lift it out every two months, allow it to drip and place it in another bucket filled with a newly made-up solution of salt.

Step 3: Submerge in 10% brine

Olives in bags in brine.

I am looking forward to this journey of preserving olives, and I hope you will too.

Knot each bag loosely and fit them as tightly as possible in your buckets, keeping the olives submerged in the brine.

I recommend 10 litre buckets as they are easier to lift. Cover the olives you are preserving under a plate to make sure that each and every one remains submerged. Adding a slosh of grape vinegar to limit spoilage is sometimes recommended even at this early stage.

It is very important that when preserving olives, after reaping, contact with air should be strictly limited; oxygen, heat and light are the great enemies.

Notice the autumn leaves; fortunately preserving olives is done during the cooler part of the year; they need to be kept under 20° C throughout the process.

Olives sealed in a bucket.

Step 4: Fresh 10% brine

  • 1 week
  • 2 weeks later
  • 2 months later
  • Every two months until they have lost enough of their bitterness for your palate.

After three months it is a good idea to check a few olives once a month; they can suddenly get soft.

The olives spend a week in the first 10% brine and then, according to the schedule above, the bags must be removed from their buckets, allowed to drip, and dropped into a fresh solution of the same concentration.

Again cover with the plate that presses the olives you are preserving down and away from the air; fill the bucket with brine to the very brim so there is no oxygen to spoil them.

How long this process of placing them in fresh brine every two months will take depends on the cultivar, how ripe the olives were when picked, and even the season. Your personal preference for the level of pungency and bitterness comes into the equation too.

After four months sample a couple of the olives you are preserving; are they still too bitter? Then they must go for a further period in the brine.

This process can take from 4 to 18 months, but eight seems to be a good average for you to work on.

At the end of every two month period, you can remove a few olives, place them in a cup of fresh water for 24 hrs and then taste them. If they are still too bitter then they must go back in the brine for another period.

It is normal to find some fungi growing on the surface of the brine during this period; it is no good reason to fuss. Simply lift the olives in bags out of the liquid, allow to drip and put them into a fresh salt solution with a little vinegar.

Step 5: Wash in fresh water

Preserving olives is an exercise in patience. When you decide they are palatable, place them in a large plastic tray in fresh water, agitating frequently by using a hose and keep washing them to remove as much of the salt as possible, and the last of the bitterness.

Placing them out in the sun will help them regain their dark colour again. Remove any that float or are obviously damaged or have burst.

This washing in fresh water should be for two days.

Step 6: Bottling your olives

The final step of preserving olives is the bottling. These can be as small or large as you prefer.

Pack the washed olives as tightly as possible in your clean glass bottles, or even a large plastic container that you can dip into periodically with a soup ladle.

The pickling liquid is prepared in a large saucepan using a solution of salt and vinegar in water.

  • 150 g salt
  • 150 ml grape vinegar
  • 2.5 litres of water

This is enough for about 10kg of olives. Use the best quality vinegar you can find. Next time I am going to try apple cider vinegar or balsamico.

Heat but do not allow the mixture to boil; when it begins to steam pour it over the freshly washed olives in jars so that they are completely covered.

Add your favourite herbs; it is traditional to use bay leaves, peppercorns, rosemary, basil and chilis.

Once the liquid in your jars has cooled, cover it with a layer of olive oil to seal and keep out any air; tighten the lids.

Preserving olives is a long business which is why they are so expensive; it can take as little as four months, but can take well over a year. With a little patience, and some sweat off your brow, they will be priced so that you can indulge in half a dozen daily.

Stop the fermentation process

Step 6 is important to stop the fermentation process completely, or your olives will go soft and mushy going into the second year.

When the olives are ready to preserve, after enough 10% salt repeats to remove sufficient of the bitterness to your satisfaction, you have to stop the fermentation by pickling them finally with boiling salt and vinegar, as above, otherwise they will spoil. Then they will last for years.

Olives in brine.

Greek wisdom

A very elderly Greek friend remembers that as a child, once the olives in brine taste right, they would wash them thoroughly to remove as much of the salt as possible, and then lay them out in the sun on a sheet to dry for a day.

Then they would go straight into olive oil, not a brine and vinegar mixture.

That oil, once the olives had been eaten, would be used for frying, and even as a salad dressing.

There are clearly many ways of preserving olives.

Italian wisdom

We have recently had the privilege of a visit from an Italian friend who is very serious about his olives; he says ours at three months taste divine and need no further processing. Leave them in brine and enjoy just as they are.

He admits that he likes them a little bitter, but we would prefer to leave them for another two months in brine.

Preserving olives

Preserving olives is really only for those who want to enjoy them daily at an affordable price; generally the markup from farmer to retailer is outrageous.

Mind you, it has been quite a lot of work, though little expense, and much patience. This is not a process that can be hurried.

Only time will extract the bitterness from the fruit whilst it lies idle in brine.

There is a great taste and wellness to be enjoyed, making it worth all the time and effort.

It is a fun journey, worth taking pleasure in if you are one of those who lives life according to the beat of a different drum.

It is now December, some seven months since the fruit was picked and the process of preserving our olives began; there is nothing more to be done than periodically scooping them out of the brine and vinegar mixture, rinsing them to get some of the salt out, and we then transfer them to extra virgin oil.

The first batch was a little too bitter for me, though others loved it; these olives are now perfect for my taste buds.

On a mixed green salad with baby tomatoes and feta cheese they make the perfect Greek salad.

I call it Helen's fifteen euro salad actually, first made in Holland and now in Hilton.

Pit olives

Learning how to pit olives is one of those skills that everyone coming from the Mediterranean will know; we should all learn it. It is so simple.

Schedule 2019

  • 3 May
  • 3 May
  • 4 May
  • 5 May
  • 12 May
  • 1 June
  • 12 July
  • 12 September

(they are ready and I will now move to step 6)

  • Pick olives
  • Wash 1
  • Wash 2
  • Brine 0
  • Brine 1wk later
  • Brine 2wk later
  • Brine 2 mos later
  • Brine 4 mos
  • Brine 6 mos
  • Brine 8 mos

The three-month change of the brine is now complete and it was really very quick. The longest part was waiting for the salt to dissolve in the hot water.

I use the cheapest that is available; not the coarse.

Not losing count and making sure that you have added ten litres of water to 1kg of the mineral is the most difficult part.

One little benefit for this gardener is that plants do not like brine. I hate using Roundup; all the suggestions are that it is really toxic and perhaps causes lymphoma, though the American courts have as usual gone totally overboard.

Salt water from preserving olives, poured onto the pesky little weeds that come up in the driveway has proved amazingly effective.

The olives incidentally, even at this early stage, tasted amazingly good. I reckon in another two months we will probably start enjoying them.


It is now August, 2019 and we are enjoying our olives. There are many thoughts and plans on how preserving olives should proceed.

It is now September, and the olives have lost their bitterness and have gone a little soft. It is time for bottling to stop the fermentation; in fact I should probably have done it a month ago.

Schedule 2020

In 2020 we are trying something a little different, and the courier let us down. It took them a whole month to get them to our little village in Hilton on the opposite side of South Africa. So in stead of a week later, it took four to make the first change of the brine; time will tell how serious this has been.

And instead of buckets, using bags for easy change of the brine, we are going into 25 litre drums. Getting the olives into the mouth was a little troublesome with a make-shift funnel, but changing the liquid will be a lot easier. We will update as we go along.

These olives came from a Stellenbosch farm, were a little cheaper at R20/kg, but it is much cooler than the Little Karoo and they ripened a whole month later; June instead of May. Another preserving olives journey has begun. It is going to be an annual ritual.

  • Pick olives
  • Wash 1
  • Wash 2
  • Brine 0
  • Brine 1mth later
  • Brine 2wk later
  • Brine 2 mo later
  • Brine 4 mos
  • Brine 6 mos
  • Brine 8 mos
  • 10 June, 2020
  • 10 June
  • 11 June
  • 12 June
  • 11 July
  • 25 July
  • 25 August - still a touch bitter, another month.

Olive oil

Once you have opened a bottle of olive oil, enjoy and finish it within a couple months; oxygen is the great enemy. Unopened it will be fine for up to two years.

Once it gets the taste of rancid nuts it is becomes horrible; unlike wine, it does not improve with age.

Beware in 2020 because the coronavirus epidemic has caused chaos in the industry. With the collapse of tourism, olive oil prices have dropped dramatically, and worse is that a huge surplus of 2019 of Spanish olive oil is flooding the Italian market and being labelled as Italian olive oil. Manufacturers the world over in virtually every product suck with their lies and deceit[1].

The only way to be sure of the food you are getting, be it olives, honey, wheat, fruit and vegetables to find small farmers who will market their products directly to you. If you value the taste and nutrition of good food, it is worth the time and effort.

  1. COVID-19 Inflicts €2 Billion of Losses on Italian Olive Oil Sector

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56 Groenekloof Rd,

Hilton, KZN

South Africa